The circus in revolution

Over the last 30 years, the circus has surprised us with its growth in multiple directions. The proliferation of educational spaces and, consequently, new actors in the circus scene, has enhanced a production chain that includes the creation of shows, technical innovations, theoretical production and the approximation to various sports – but, above all, the advancement of the language. A remarkable number of performances created by subjects and collectives are concerned with the writing of the work and its potential social effects. Circus production today delivers shows with poetic discourses that are very different in nature from the circus references of not long ago.

The circus seems to be going through an ontological revolution, in which the paradigms of its own identity are once again being questioned. It is no coincidence that we often ask ourselves: is this circus or dance, circus or theater, is it performance, juggling or visual arts?

Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a new genre. Concept circus? Performing art circus? Dance circus? Theater circus?

The current circus scene is in intense interchange with other languages, which makes us ponder the degree to which these languages are cross articulated.

The circus is and has been a pluri-disciplinary field, not only for the variety of techniques and knowledge involved in it, but also thanks to the integration of other artistic languages such as music, dance, theater, set design, lighting design, etc. This isn’t new. Historically, the circus has expanded the limits of its diversity and fed on the coexistence of different artistic domains. It goes on with its voracious inventive nature.

But the interdisciplinary collaboration, that is, the transference of methods from one discipline to another, seems to come even closer to the kinds of relationships we observe today in circus productions. It is no longer the incorporation and exchange of elements from different art forms, but rather a transference of procedures from one language to another. Today, we see scenes, acts and shows that are shaped by the principles of dance, such as repetition, gestural phrases, detailed movement, rhythmic precision, in-depth choreographic expression, and even works that borrow the processes of visual arts, such as light, contrast, figure-ground and the study of colors, to name a few. Overall it is safe to conclude that the circus is opening itself to creative procedures that seek new narratives.

The so-called contemporary circus conceives gesture as the smallest unit of its language. It is no longer the act, action or character, but the gesture that contains an expressive charge. What, then, could define the circus gesture? Is it the acrobatic, virtuous and grotesque, the achievement of stunts?

Belgian playwright Bauke Lievens believes that the work of many circuses today doesn’t express the old idea of man’s mastery, feats or ability to overcome of nature, but perhaps an understanding of fundamentally tragic human actions. For her, what is revealed is a battle with an invisible opponent, where the goal isn’t to win, but to resist and not to lose. The circus is at once a promise of tragedy and an attempt to escape it, which makes its performer a tragic hero. This reflection undoubtedly applies to many cases, which makes us think that these constructions speak of an intrinsic problem of its own doing.

On the one hand, the impositions of the language seem to establish technical limits to communicate complex meanings like those expressed by words, but, on the other hand, the circus isn’t restricted to the use of speech, as its expressive diversity includes both voice and gesture. But if the circus can incorporate everything it wishes to communicate, what defines its own essence?

Could the circus as a language, and like the theater, communicate themes as all encompassing as those explored by dramatic literature?

We return to the idea of a revolution. Many circuses share the need to transform the parameters and paradigms of this language, wishing to be all-inclusive and diverse. Innovation and creativity require that circus artists as well as producers, programmers, educators, cultural agents, sponsors, public managers and even the audience allow the circus to venture into unknown terrain.

At a time when the value of culture is being questioned, the circus must foster debate, question the facsimile, open its doors to foreign lands, and accept diversity in order to contribute to the critical function of art.


Erica Stoppel is a circus artist and researcher based in São Paulo since 1992. She holds a Master’s degree in Performing Arts from Unicamp’s Performing Arts Institute (State University of Campinas) and a BA in Acting from UNA (Universidad Nacional de las Artes), Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is co-founder of Circo Zanni (2004), Piccolo Circo Teatro de Variedades (2013) and Cia das Rosas (2017). She created Companhia Linhas Aéreas with Ziza Brisola in 1999 and was co-founder of Companhia Nau de Ícaros in 1993. She also created Central do Circo, active in São Paulo from 1999 to 2003. She is the author of Manual de trapecio fijo – técnica en las artes del circo (Buenos Aires, Libros UNA, 2018) and Trapézio Fixo – material didático (2010), available at


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